Bait and Snitch

Lying under oath, threatening witnesses, revealing the names of federal agents -- it's just another day on the job for one of the DEA's paid drug informants

The man called to tell Nabil Ismael that he would deliver $4,500 in cash the next time they saw each other. Ismael had cut off contact with him months earlier, weary of his lies and badgering. But the man refused to relent when Ismael spurned his offer, insisting Ismael deserved the money for his role in arranging several drug deals.

"I don't want to be part of this," Ismael said, his voice rising. "This is bullshit." The man ignored him. "I'm going to take care of you."

Six days later, the man called again. He would arrive in 15 minutes. Hanging up, Ismael walked into the storage area behind the corner store he owns in the Outer Mission. In the room's dim light, he bowed toward Mecca, his chest tight with dread. He implored Allah to watch over him.

"If I would have to serve 15, 20 years, I 
would, as long as God knows I'm innocent," 
Nabil Ismael says. "I can't lie."
Paolo Vescia
"If I would have to serve 15, 20 years, I would, as long as God knows I'm innocent," Nabil Ismael says. "I can't lie."
On Nov. 1, 2004, DEA agents flooded into 
the corner store Ismael (right) owns.
Paolo Vescia
On Nov. 1, 2004, DEA agents flooded into the corner store Ismael (right) owns.
Ian Loveseth, Ismael's attorney, raps the 
DEA for overselling a suspect investigation 
to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Paolo Vescia
Ian Loveseth, Ismael's attorney, raps the DEA for overselling a suspect investigation to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Finishing his prayer, Ismael returned to the store's cramped office, where in a steel combination safe he kept a registered handgun that he had bought to scare off thieves. He considered stuffing the .45 in his sweat shirt pocket, then decided little good could come from packing a gun, no matter what the man's intentions. So he sat down to wait, staring at a small TV monitor that transmits the feed from the shop's security cameras. Long minutes passed until, in one corner of the split screen, he spotted four or five men rushing toward the front entrance. When one of them turned, Ismael read the white letters on the back of his dark jacket: DEA.

Fear urged him to flee through the back door; common sense warned he wouldn't get far. Slowly, he shuffled out of his office and into federal custody.

The agents cuffed him on drug conspiracy charges, alleging he brokered multiple deals to sell cocaine and methamphetamine over a 17-month span. As they escorted Ismael from the store, he scanned the sidewalks along Mission Street. Nowhere did he see Essam Magid, the man who called him -- and, he believed, conned him.

Authorities shuttled Ismael downtown and placed him in a holding cell; three men he recognized would eventually join him. Like Ismael, they now realized Sam, as Magid called himself, worked as an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration. Yet beyond sharing their anger, Ismael felt a deep sense of shame. Well before their arrests last November, Ismael says, he agreed to abet Magid in a drug sting -- only he and the others weren't supposed to be its targets.

Days after they first met in June 2003, Ismael asserts, Magid claimed he was running a federal drug investigation and made an unusual business pitch: In exchange for introductions to any small-time dope peddlers Ismael might know, Magid would find him a job with the Department of Homeland Security or another agency, saying the government needed Arabic speakers to aid its anti-terrorism crusade.

Ismael balked, wary of his new acquaintance and unwilling to play rat, worried he would risk arrest or put others in jeopardy. But Magid persisted, Ismael says, calling or visiting every day for almost a week, vowing that he wanted to meet street dealers only as a means to bust their suppliers. In Ismael's telling, Magid traded on their shared Middle Eastern heritage -- both men are natives of Yemen -- and posed as a fellow Muslim to dupe Ismael into thinking his actions would benefit the U.S. government. "As an older person than me, I respect him, I believe him," says Ismael, 29, his English tinged with an Arab accent. By assisting Magid, Ismael, then employed as a used-car salesman, imagined a career upgrade to serving his adopted homeland. "I was under impression I would be fighting terrorism," he says.

Instead, with a DUI in 1997 the lone blemish on his police record prior to his arrest, Ismael would find himself fighting to absolve his name in court. A conviction would bring 20 years in prison, a fate less disgraceful to a man of faith than pleading guilty to crimes that, he charges, Magid deceived him into committing under the pretense of patriotism. Indeed, while merely acting the part of a Muslim, Magid may have misjudged the piety of the man he apparently pegged as his stooge.

"If I would have to serve 15, 20 years, I would, as long as God knows I'm innocent. I can't lie. It is haram," Ismael says, invoking the Arabic word for "immoral." "I can't do it."

His resolve to win vindication at trial would lift the lid on the murky milieu of federal informants, exposing Magid's past misdeeds, the questionable actions of his supervisors, and the DEA's habit of coddling informants. On a broader level, Ismael's case would trigger a federal probe into whether the DEA hid damaging details about Magid's history from law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, and defense lawyers in California and elsewhere, an investigation that could change the fortunes of some 20 people Magid helped put behind bars.


Magid makes for an elusive subject, as befits a person who works undercover for a living. A cell phone number that belonged to him was recently disconnected, and interview requests mailed to his last known address, in Visalia, received no response. His wife, reached at her workplace, vaguely hinted that he's "overseas" before ending the call. Still, much as he may seek to avoid scrutiny, public records and court transcripts reveal how Magid, 43, stumbled into his life's calling as a snitch.

In the late '90s, after his conviction on felony money-laundering charges in New York, and despite a probation order to remain in the state, he left his ex-wife and six children to move to Norfolk, Va. Following a conviction for assaulting a Norfolk police officer, he migrated to Michigan and, later, California. In August 1999, the Fresno police -- tipped off by an informant, as fate would have it -- collared Magid on suspicion of trafficking pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in making methamphetamine. If convicted, he faced a 20-year sentence followed by deportation to Yemen.

Showing an instinct for self-preservation, and a desire to stay in the United States, Magid agreed to give up the names of other meth and cocaine suppliers in return for reduced charges. He began cooperating before the ink on his fingerprints dried, and when the feds released him almost a year later, he hit the streets as a paid informant. Since then, he has infiltrated drug rings in San Francisco, Fresno, Michigan, and Maryland, enabling agents to nab some two dozen suspected traffickers and seize five pounds of meth and more than $175,000, a DEA affidavit states. His undercover prowess has led to additional assignments with the FBI, the IRS, the California Justice Department, and other agencies.

As a career move, snitching has afforded Magid a comfortable lifestyle, records show, earning him nearly $100,000, a figure that does not include the apartments, cars, and assorted living expenses covered by the feds. (Nor does it reflect that, as of August, the government had failed to garnish Magid's wages even though he owes more than $100,000 in child support.)

He has reaped other benefits. In 2002, federal prosecutors in Fresno, at the urging of DEA officials who vouched for Magid's value as an informant, persuaded a judge to toss the trafficking charges against him and, for good measure, seal the court file. Ironically, the case's dismissal occurred only three weeks after the FBI booted Magid as an informant for a variety of blunders.

The bureau's Sacramento office poached Magid from the DEA to work on terrorist investigations soon after the 9/11 attacks, exploiting his language skills and Middle Eastern background to penetrate the Muslim community. Trouble arose when three Stockton cops arrested Magid on a public drunkenness charge in August 2002. Contending that one officer called him a "terrorist," he retorted that he worked for the FBI, according to a bureau report, thereby blowing his cover -- the original sin of snitch work.

Around the same time, an internal probe determined that Magid disclosed his covert identity and the names of two agents to at least one man under FBI investigation. He also bragged about his agency dealings to "several" other people, the agency found, purportedly telling them to call him if they ran into problems with the FBI.

Officials confronted Magid, who in short order denied their charges, failed a polygraph, and, finally, waxed contrite, saying he "knew the rules" and should "keep his big mouth closed." Notwithstanding his apology, the FBI cut him loose in October 2002. The same day, fully aware of his misconduct, the DEA -- which has no policy that prohibits it from working with an informant deactivated by another agency -- welcomed him back. Two weeks later, agents plugged Magid into a new Bay Area investigation, one that would bring him into contact with a young man named Nabil Ismael.


Hassan Al-Mamari's cell phone chirped as he and Ismael sat in a San Bruno coffee shop in early June 2003. On the line was Magid, a friend of Al-Mamari's brother, and after a minute of chatter, Magid decided to join them. Sam, as Magid introduced himself, showed up "looking like he'd just had a fresh shower," Ismael recalls of the first time he saw him. Short and lean, his black hair slicked back and his mustache neatly trimmed, Magid sported dark sunglasses and a genial manner. The three Yemeni émigrés talked about their homeland and families, according to Ismael and Al-Mamari, before walking over to the used-car lot where Ismael worked at the time. Magid took a stroll around the lot, casually inquired about buying a car, and went on his way.

Over the next few days, Ismael says, Magid made a habit of calling him or dropping by the dealership, his rapid-fire banter echoing through the showroom. Ismael suspected nothing ominous. As it turned out, Magid's wife and Ismael had attended college together, and Magid claimed to know Ismael's uncle, Mansoor, the honorary Yemeni consul to the U.S. in San Francisco. (Mansoor Ismael says they've never talked.) "He seemed like a nice guy," Nabil Ismael says. "I just thought he was friendly."

His perception changed during their fourth or fifth conversation. It was then, he contends, that Magid boasted of working for the government to catch dope suppliers and asked for help finding street peddlers. By Ismael's account, if he brought Magid a few people with drug connections, Magid would make a few calls to land Ismael a Homeland Security job. Unnerved, but still trying to show respect for a countryman, Ismael says he told Magid, "I think about it."

If Ismael hoped his acquaintance would pick up on his polite refusal, Magid apparently missed the hint. The next afternoon, Ismael asserts, Magid called to ask, "Have you talked to anyone?" The pattern repeated for a few days, and each time, Ismael says, Magid would crow, "I make very good money working for the government."

Casting his eyes downward, Ismael admits the prospect of a new career gradually seduced him. He arrived in the Bay Area in 1991, at age 14, brought to the U.S. by his father, who spent 35 years as a cargo loader on San Francisco's docks. In June 2003, Ismael lived with his brother in a small San Bruno apartment, and he still appreciated his prosperity relative to Yemen's chronic poverty. Yet as he listened to Magid talk about 9-to-5 workdays and free weekends, Ismael dreamed of a life beyond selling used SUVs.

So the next time he and Magid talked, Ismael heard himself ask, "What do I have to do?" He says Magid directed him to quietly approach friends, acquaintances, customers -- anyone -- to see whether they knew suppliers who could move upward of 30 kilos of cocaine or meth. If somebody said yes, Ismael should arrange a meeting to introduce Magid as his Uncle Sam, in town from Hawaii and eager to buy. Still skittish that neighborhood peddlers would exact revenge on him if arrested, Ismael says Magid gave him his word: "Nothing will happen. We want the big dealers." Ismael chose to trust him.


Within a couple of days, Ismael talked to an old high-school friend who stopped by the dealership, and the man agreed to meet with Magid. Court records state that, with Magid and Ismael in his car, the man pulled out two pieces of plastic wrap that held small samples of cocaine and meth. Ismael recalls sitting in the back seat, bug-eyed and motionless. Before meeting Magid, he insists, his experience with drugs consisted of buying weed on a few occasions. "Now I'm watching this thinking, 'Shit! What am I doing?'"

The man also negotiated to sell Magid a kilo of cocaine for $17,500, a deal that fell through because, Ismael claims, the man "got so sick of Sam calling him all the time." In the meantime, Ismael says, Magid pressed him for further introductions. He obliged by putting Magid in touch with Kwasi Sampson, a longtime customer of the dealership. Sometime later, without Ismael present, Sampson allegedly sold a pound of crystal meth to Magid and an undercover DEA agent for $11,500.

Ismael also talked to a friend who referred him to a man willing to sell a kilo of cocaine. Magid set up a rendezvous in a bank parking lot next to the dealership and brought along an associate named Ricky. Wearing a Hawaiian shirt, his dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, Ricky told Ismael that he operated out of Hawaii and wanted to buy large quantities of cocaine and meth. Ismael nodded, saying little. Magid had shared few details about Ricky, and Ismael found the man's presence unsettling. "He would stare at you sometimes like he was saying, 'I'm going to get you, motherfucker.'" Only after his arrest would Ismael learn that Ricky is DEA agent Dwayne Bareng, who supervised Magid at the time.

The coke dealer failed to show, and as the summer wore on, the stress of trying to locate sources for Magid devoured Ismael. He withdrew from family and friends, lost his appetite. "It was a different Nabil," says his younger brother, Mohammed, who works at the dealership. "He was becoming like a stranger." In mid-August, Ismael introduced Magid to Fadi Yaghnam, an acquaintance of a co-worker's cousin, and soon after, determined to escape Magid's hectoring, he quit his job and changed his cell phone number. His contact with Magid tapered off.

In late 2003, dipping into savings and borrowing money from family, Ismael opened a small neighborhood store in the Outer Mission. The demands of running a business took his mind off Magid, and by last autumn, Ismael, newly married and his store expanding, felt at peace -- until Magid called on Nov. 1, 2004. His ruse to bring Ismael $4,500 for setting up drug deals would end with DEA agents flooding Ismael's store. On the same day, agents arrested Yaghnam and his father, George, who allegedly sold six kilos of cocaine to undercover agents over a 14-month stretch. They also rounded up Al-Mamari on drug conspiracy charges; Sampson would be busted on a similar rap a short time later.

Court records show Ismael candidly admitted to agents that he made introductions for Magid, statements that portray Ismael as "an experienced drug broker," prosecutors wrote. Yet neither Ismael nor his attorney, Ian Loveseth, dispute what occurred, only the original motive. In pretrial filings, Loveseth advanced a so-called public-authority defense, arguing that, under the guise of running a federal investigation, Magid had lured Ismael into criminal activity. (Public authority differs from entrapment, which denotes explicit coercion to break the law.)

Bolstering that claim were conversations taped by the DEA that reveal how Ismael, though he accepted two payments totaling $1,100 from Bareng, voiced almost no interest in receiving money for helping Magid. In one conversation, as Bareng pushes him to specify a dollar figure, Ismael replies, "I'm not in it for the money." Even Magid remarks on Ismael's lack of greed, at one point saying to Bareng, "And he don't even ask you for money, Nabil."

"He gets all of $1,100 over a year and a half, and he doesn't even want that," Loveseth says. "Doesn't really sound like an experienced drug broker, does it?"


The DEA works with 4,000 "confidential sources," to borrow its preferred term for informants, the vast majority of them ex-cons who turn to snitching to reduce their prison terms. Paying "retired" criminals to catch active ones, if an ethical compromise, reflects the blunt logic of the narc business, says Dan Addario, former special agent in charge of the DEA's San Francisco office. "You don't get information on dope dealers from rabbis, priests, and ministers. You need a crook to do the job." As for an informant's training, it largely consists of reading and signing a 15-page agreement -- a kind of snitch's code of conduct -- that, among a litany of admonitions, warns against committing crimes to obtain information. In practice, the rule proves far more elastic.

"An informant might have snorted coke with a defendant," says a DEA agent who asked not to be named, fearing reprimands from higher-ups. "But if he helped bring in a guy who delivered large amounts of coke and the jury buys the story, it's the lesser of two evils."

The task of leashing confidential sources -- monitoring their contact with investigation subjects, corroborating the information they provide -- falls to 5,300 case agents, who first learn the tricks of snitch management at the DEA's training academy in Quantico, Va. Once assigned to a field office, they pair with a senior agent experienced in the ways of the street -- or, at least, that's the official line.

In recent years, Addario says, the DEA has nudged aside snitch-savvy veterans in favor of Ivy League technocrats who, while adept at intelligence gathering, "have never worked the streets or made a narcotics buy. You have to actually handle an informant, not read 9,000 books on it."

Michael Levine, a retired New York DEA agent and an expert witness on informant conduct, argues that the department's credibility has withered as agents, ever eager to bag criminals, allow snitches to stray. "There's a lying sociopath running the case and he's saying, 'What is it you want to hear, Mr. Agent?'" Levine estimates that informants broke the law in over half of the 200 cases in which he's testified, their offenses ranging from entrapment to witness intimidation. "And it all stems from poor control by the agents," he says.

Bareng, who did not respond to interview requests, worked as a jailer with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department before joining the DEA in 1996. He had supervised four other informants by the time he began handling Magid in 1999, and he has testified that Magid ranks as his most productive confidential source. Yet the Ismael case suggests that Magid's "success" may derive in part from an absence of agent oversight.

Court records reveal that Magid, flouting a DEA policy that discourages unsupervised contact between informants and targets of an investigation, met or spoke with Ismael on no fewer than 16 occasions, belatedly briefing Bareng or other supervisory agents about what allegedly occurred. "Sixteen times," says Loveseth, shaking his head. "That's sixteen times when the agents don't have a fucking clue what happened and have to take the guy's word for it."

Records show that Magid repeatedly fed information to DEA agents based on his untaped conversations with Ismael, creating the impression that Ismael initiated deals on his own. In one instance, he claimed that Ismael wanted money for introducing Magid to Sampson, yet when Bareng asks his price, Ismael says, "I don't care. It doesn't matter." Magid displayed similar solo tendencies while an informant with the FBI in 2002. According to a source familiar with the case, Magid had unsupervised contact with the subject of an investigation in Stockton and, over time, coaxed him to work as a snitch -- a scenario that loosely parallels Ismael's charge of Magid baiting him with the possibility of a government job.

Under federal statute, prosecutors can withhold such mundane details as an informant's name and age, to say nothing of past misconduct, from defense lawyers until the accused opts to go to trial. The dearth of information, coupled with the severity of drug-sentencing laws, compels most defendants to cut their losses and plead guilty. Prosecutors, meanwhile, have their own reasons for pressing plea deals -- they know the dangers of putting a rat on the stand. "It's like handling explosives," says former federal prosecutor Rory Little, a professor at Hastings College of the Law. "You're always worried someone's going to stumble and it's going to blow."

Even if a case moves toward trial, however, a snitch's history can remain buried. Earlier this year, Jorge Alvarez-Marroquin faced a jury on charges of possessing and distributing meth as part of a Fresno drug ring. The testimony of a federal informant helped convict him, and he received a 15-year sentence. The snitch's name? Essam Magid.

Prior to trial, John Garland, Alvarez-Marroquin's lawyer, sought information about Magid from federal prosecutors, who provided a copy of a letter written by the acting agent in charge of the DEA's San Francisco office. "The DEA is not aware of any information negatively impacting Mr. Magid's ability to testify accurately and truthfully," the letter stated, "and he is regarded as credible and reliable."

Garland doesn't believe prosecutors scrubbed the stains from Magid's snitch record, including the FBI's decision to deactivate him. "They gave me what the DEA gave them," he says. Considering the typically congested flow of information among law enforcement agencies, says San Francisco defense lawyer Paul Wolf, "defendants proceed to trial at their own risk if they think they'll be able to dig up dirt on an informant." Wolf, who represents Kwasi Sampson, adds that even if evidence of a snitch's misconduct emerges, "a lot of judges rule that background on informants isn't relevant."

Loveseth urged Ismael to accept a plea deal that would let him walk after four years. But while Loveseth grasped the long odds of winning the case, he admits to initially mistaking Ismael's refusal to plead guilty as naive obstinance. One high-decibel argument between lawyer and client occurred around the time Ismael's wife gave birth to the couple's first child in May, three months before the start of Ismael's trial. After Ismael again spurned a plea offer, the 6-foot-5 Loveseth, whose height and bearded mug lend him a bearlike presence, rose from his chair and bellowed, "It's not about innocence, c'mon!"

Recounting the moment, Ismael ducks, as if slipping a punch. "Ian, he was so mad. I knew he really cared. I keep telling him, 'The truth will come out.'" Ismael spent long hours analyzing case documents, scouring the Arabic-to-English translations of the DEA's taped conversations to search for discrepancies. In risking 20 years in prison, he derived strength from faith and fury. "If I said I did those things, it would be lying to God. What Sam did, it was wrong." His willpower earned him an earthy nickname from Loveseth -- Nabil "More Balls Than Brains" Ismael -- along with the veteran defense lawyer's enduring respect. "He has," Loveseth says, "the courage of his convictions."


Ismael carried a small copy of the Koran in his suit pocket as he walked into the cavernous courtroom of U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer in August. In a strange way, the start of his trial dulled his anxiety, his unease dissolving as, at long last, he confronted the accusations against him. His calmness soon morphed into confidence, thanks to Breyer.

Early on, Assistant U.S. Attorney Alexis Hunter requested that Breyer preclude a defense investigator from mentioning Magid's snitch work while interviewing potential witnesses. Breyer's response mixed disbelief with sarcasm, as he chided prosecutors for living "in some rarified, unreal" realm where they seek to both convict a person and restrict his ability to mount a defense. When Hunter protested that the investigator's inquiries could provoke retribution against Magid, Breyer cut her off midsentence, reminding her that prosecutors had pursued the case knowing that Magid's identity would be exposed in court.

"If you're so concerned about [his] safety," the judge said, "maybe you ought to dismiss the charge ...."

In fact, others may have needed protection from Magid, who apparently sought to intimidate a defense witness before Ismael's trial. Private investigator Don Criswell, a retired homicide detective hired by Loveseth, interviewed a man who met Magid during his stint as an FBI snitch in Sacramento. In an echo of Ismael's account, the man asserted that Magid, without first alerting FBI agents, recruited him to work as an informant.

To dissuade the man from testifying about Magid's freestyle approach to snitching, Magid allegedly threatened to claim he had sex with the man's daughter before she married. Such a slur could more than humiliate the woman, a Muslim who lives in Yemen -- Islam views premarital sex as a sin punishable by excommunication, public floggings, or, in extreme circumstances, death.

On the stand, Bareng, the DEA agent, revealed that Magid admitted to harassing the man, one of several startling disclosures to surface at trial as a result of Criswell's spadework. The investigator also unearthed evidence that DEA agents may have instructed Magid to lie under oath in another court to preserve his covert identity and the ongoing probe of Ismael and his co-defendants.

Hassan Al-Mamari, Ismael's friend, sued Magid in San Francisco small claims court in 2004, accusing Magid of stealing $5,000 that was intended to cover Al-Mamari's bail after his arrest on assault charges. Worried about their informant tipping off Al-Mamari to the drug investigation of which he was a target, DEA agents prepped Magid before he testified. According to Bareng, he and other agents told Magid, "You can't divulge that you're an informant with [the] DEA." Two agents were dispatched to small claims court to chaperone Magid, who in response to the judge's inquiry about his livelihood dutifully gave a dishonest answer: "I sell cars."

Loveseth pounced on Bareng's admission, asking if, in effect, the DEA ordered Magid to lie under oath. Bareng, as though mulling the possibility for the first time, replied, "I suppose he probably would have been put in that position."

The revelation that the DEA potentially compelled Magid to commit perjury, coupled with the snitch's alleged attempt to bully a witness, troubled Breyer, a former criminal defense lawyer. But it was when Bareng pleaded ignorance about why the FBI terminated Magid in 2002 that the judge imparted a bit of pro bono advice to prosecutors. Pointing out that Bareng's statement directly contradicted the pretrial testimony of an FBI agent who stated that she briefed Bareng, Breyer said, "I think you better look at this case very carefully and see whether you want to proceed with it."

Hunter and fellow prosecutor Audra Ibarra chose to soldier on, and the next day, Bareng attempted to clarify his answer about Magid's FBI departure. As it turned out, he said, he had previously "misspoken" -- a bureau agent did indeed explain the circumstances to him. At that point, Breyer, realizing Bareng may have committed perjury, asked again if prosecutors cared to drop the case. They refused and, in a last-ditch grab at a conviction, offered a final plea deal of "misprisonment": In essence, Ismael would admit to knowing crimes occurred but would serve no time.

Loveseth relayed his client's terse response. "He's not interested."

By leaving Bareng on the stand after he appeared to contradict himself, prosecutors virtually forced him to exercise his right against self-incrimination, after which he stepped down and Breyer flushed his testimony. A short time later, Breyer granted Hunter's request to spike the case, clinching Ismael's exoneration. "I thank God," Ismael says, then catches himself. "God and Ian."

Loveseth, in discussing one of the biggest victories of his 28-year law career, raps the DEA for overselling a suspect investigation to the U.S. Attorney's Office, which he in turn faults for its mulish reluctance to dump an unsound case. But he saves his most acerbic criticism for the agent and the snitch who ruined Ismael's life for the better part of a year. Referring to the possibility that Bareng committed perjury and directed Magid to lie under oath, he asks, "Was Bareng's biggest problem what he did or that he wasn't smart enough to cover it up?"

Meanwhile, Loveseth says, any misery that visits Magid represents karmic comeuppance. "Just look at what he put Nabil through. Magid figured he had an easy mark and went after someone he thought he could fool. Now he's paying the price."

The end of Ismael's crucible marked the start of a sweeping Justice Department inquiry into Magid's and Bareng's conduct in cases they have worked. Following the trial, Breyer ordered a federal probe to examine whether Magid lured Ismael into committing crimes, coerced a defense witness, or lied in small claims court at Bareng's behest. The judge also asked investigators to determine if Bareng committed perjury or withheld word of Magid's FBI termination when urging prosecutors to drop drug charges against the snitch in 2002. In addition, Breyer demanded to know whether Bareng, other agents, and DEA supervisors suppressed unflattering details about Magid's past conduct from prosecutors and defense lawyers involved in the informant's cases.

In short, as Breyer asked federal officials, "What did the DEA know and when?"

The investigation could alter the fate of two dozen people Magid helped put away, including seven in Fresno, and potentially countless others if the probe broadens to examine other informants Bareng has handled. Prosecutors already have dropped the case against Al-Mamari and reduced charges against Fadi Yaghnam, two of Ismael's former co-defendants, and delayed the sentencing of the other two, Kwasi Sampson and George Yaghnam. (The Yaghnams and Sampson declined to comment.)

Citing the ongoing investigation, officials from the U.S. Attorney's Office, the DEA, and the FBI refused to discuss Ismael's trial, as did Breyer. A DEA spokesman, downplaying the case, asserted that the agency's informants are "rarely criticized," a response that suggests the federal probe will create little change in the handling of informants. "Prosecutors are so dependent on snitches, it's hard to imagine anything will be different," says defense lawyer Alan Dressler, who represents Fadi Yaghnam. "Without snitches, there wouldn't be any drug prosecutions."

Even so, the fallout of Ismael's case may curtail the undercover work of Bareng and Magid, given the ostensible damage to each man's credibility. Bareng's lawyer, Steve Gruel, concedes his client could wind up with a DEA desk job if his bosses believe the Ismael trial will shadow him every time he takes the stand. Magid, by contrast, might land back in Yemen. He has faced an annual review on his immigration status since his Fresno arrest in 1999, and DEA officials have worked on his behalf to assure Immigration Services that he deserves to remain in the U.S. If he loses his snitch status, the feds may decide to deport him.

But that seems unlikely. Despite Magid's supposed termination by the FBI three years ago, he has worked with at least three agencies on a regular basis. And, as of June of this year, he continued to feed information to a fourth -- none other than the FBI.


Earlier this month, the day after Breyer dismissed his case, Hassan Al-Mamari dropped by Ismael's store in Ingleside. It was the first time the two friends had seen each other in nearly a year; they had avoided contact while their cases were pending, fearing they might be under surveillance. Tears in his eyes, Al-Mamari kissed Ismael on the head and neck, apologizing for ever introducing him to Magid.

"How could a guy from our country -- same culture, same people -- do this to us?" Al-Mamari asked.

Ismael patted his friend's shoulder, as if reassuring him that Magid has it far worse. "Essam will not be happy for the rest of his life."

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